StandDown Texas Project

The StandDown Texas Project identifies and advocates best practices in the criminal justice system. To stand down is to go off duty temporarily, especially to review safety procedures. That is what Texas needs to do with its death penalty.

Friday, October 29, 2004

International Law & Texas

There is more than a touch of irony found in the gap between two events this week. On Wednesday, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor spoke at Georgetown University School of Law about the growing importance of international law.

Many Court watchers are reading any tea leaves available because the Court is considering whether it is now unconstitutional to execute juvenile offenders in the United States. One factor that may play a role is the fact that the United States is virtually alone in the world in sanctioning these executions.

Justice O'Connor did not make any mention of the case (Roper v. Simmons), but did state that recognizing international law could foster more civilized societies in the United States and abroad, according to an Associated Press account. "International law is a help in our search for a more peaceful world," she said.

To view the story, go to:,0,696121.story?coll=sns-ap-politics-headlines

For the other half of the story, we move to the Texas State Capitol where Governor Rick Perry decided that Texas would not honor United Nations Day.

President Bush had signed a proclamation urging governors to honor the observance of United Nations Day, recognizing the anniversary of the U.N.'s founding in 1945. That occurred last Sunday around the world, but not officially in Texas.

After some mixed signals from the governor's office, he decided honoring the U.N. with a proclamation would be inconsistent with his views.

To view the Houston Chronicle's coverage of this international dustup, go to:

To borrow the phrase of Texas' tourism campaign of some years ago, "Texas - it's like a whole other country."

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Growing Calls for Moratorium

Judge Tom Price of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has joined the calls for a moratorium on executions involving Harris County.

"I think it would be prudent to delay further executions until we have had a chance to have this evidence independently verified," said Price. "Once a death sentence is carried out, you cannot reverse that."

Price has 30 years of judicial experience. He was elected to the CCA eight years ago.

View the article at:

Friday, October 22, 2004

Will HPD Crime Lab Force Moratorium?

A civil rights lawsuit has been filed in federal district court in Houston regarding the scheduled October 26 execution of Dominique Green. Ballistics testing played a part of Green's conviction, and ballistics testing procedures have come under criticism in the HPD crime lab scandal.

It was the discovery of 280 boxes of uncataloged evidence, however, that renewed calls for a moratorium on Harris County executions, and that is the basis for the lawsuit.

The Dallas Morning New distills the crime lab mess:

And, on the heels of its excellent series on forensic science, the Chicago Tribune focuses on Houston:,1,3821734.story

As problems continue, expect to see more national attention to Houston.

Thursday, October 21, 2004

Forensic Science Under the Microscope

The Chicago Tribune has completed a five-part series examining crime forensics labs, and it's very different from the nightly entertainment on television shows.

The final article today reviews problems at the Houston Police Department Crime Lab, problems that have been running for nearly two years now with no end in sight.

To read today's article:,1,2210813.story?coll=chi-news-hed

The Tribune has done outstanding enterprise reporting on criminal justice issues including an examination of Texas' application of the death penalty in 2000, and a series on Illinois' application of the death penalty that helped lead to a moratorium in that state. To view the entire forensics series and other special reports:

San Antonio Express News Editorial

In spite of the passage of the Texas Fair Defense Act in 2001, indigent defense in capital murder trials is still lagging. The ineffective representation that helped to wrongly convict Ernest Willis 17 years ago is still too common today.

To read the editorial:

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Dallas Morning News Calls for End to Juvenile Executions

In its editorial, the Morning News points out that the United States is the only developed nation in the world that allows the execution of juvenile offenders.

You can read the editorial at:

Monday, October 11, 2004

Juvenile Death Penalty Goes to U.S. Supreme Court

This Wednesday the question of whether or not the death penalty is suitable for juvenile offenders will be argued before the U.S. Supreme Court. If the Court follows its own logic established when it ruled offenders with mental retardation cannot face the death penalty, the Court will strike down a penalty that is rarely applied - outside of Texas.

A majority of states bans the execution of juvenile offenders, those who commit a capital crime while younger than 18 years of age, and public opinion is solidly against the practice. In the last 10 years, only Oklahoma and Virginia have joined Texas in carrying out such executions in the U.S., finding themselves in the company of the Democratic Republic of Congo and Iran.

The American Medical Association, other child development experts, a group of state attorneys general, and newspaper editorials across the nation have urged the Court to end executions of juvenile offenders.

An excellent overview of the issue can be seen in today's Chicago's Tribune:,1,2183330.story?coll=chi-newsnationworld-hed

Also, the Dallas Morning News is in the middle of a provacative series of articles on the issue:

Expect extensive coverage following Wednesday's oral arguments.

Thursday, October 07, 2004

More Calls for Moratorium

In spite of widespread calls for a moratorium on executions from Harris County, two men sentenced to death from Houston were executed by the State of Texas this week. Houston Police Chief Harold Hurtt, State Senator John Whitmire, and others have appealed to Governor Rick Perry to take action.

In the wake of those executions, newspapers are calling for a moratorium in editorials:

The Houston Chronicle has already weighed in with this editorial:

Ernest Willis Released

Yesterday, Ernest Willis walked out of the Walls Unit in Huntsville. Later today, Mr. Willis and his attorneys will be having a news conference in Houston.

Here are links to some of the coverage:,1,6123935.story

The Dallas Morning News article also contains a link to extensive coverage of the Willis case that DMN journalists Howard Swindle and Dan Malone reported in 2000.

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Another Death Row Exoneration in Texas

After 17 years on Texas death row Ernest Willis will soon be released from prison, exonerated and free. A federal district judge had overturned the conviction several months ago ordering that Willis be retried or released. After reviewing the case with arson experts, the Pecos County District Attorney has announced that he is dismissing the case.

Willis was sent to death row after being convicted of starting a house fire that killed two people. Experts now believe the fire was accidental, likely caused by faulty wiring, and not caused by arson.

The Willis case had been controversial for years because of Willis' forced medication during his trial. The powerful prescription drugs he was given rendered him unable to assist in his defense.

Willis is the eighth individual to be exonerated in Texas according to the national register maintained by the Death Penalty Information Center ( He is the 117th individual in the nation to have been exonerated after being sentenced to death.

Approximately one percent of those sentenced to death in Texas have later been exonerated and released.

More coverage can be expected tomorrow. Maro Robbins of the San Antonio Express-News broke the story:

Friday, October 01, 2004

Scott Panetti Found Competent to be Executed

A federal district judge has found Scott Panetti to be competent to be executed. Judge Sam Sparks cited the high standards set by the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals to be found incompetent, as well as gray areas unaddressed to date by the higher court. Judge Sparks issued a stay of execution in Panetti's case, pending an appeal on the issues.

You can see the judge's order at:

Harris County Lab Scandal Implodes

On the same day, Houston Police Chief Harold Hurtt called for a moratorium on executions for Harris County cases, and the District Attorney conceded that a second individual should be released due to testing flaws.

See the articles at:

The New York Times also covered these issues:

George Rodriguez has spent 17 years in Texas prison. Observers expect that he will be released soon. Last year, Josiah Sutton was released after spending four years in prison for a rape he did not commit. He received a pardon only this year, and has still not received any compensation for his wrongful conviction and incarceration.

This is far from the last we've heard on the crime lab fiasco.